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book review

Brad Wheeler, Kelly Nestruck and Kate Taylor of The Globe and Mail Arts section recommend three groovy books set or written in the 1970s.

Noisemaker by Andy Tolson

(Moose House Publications, 272 pages)

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Punk-music pioneer Richard Hell sang about escape in his song Blank Generation: “I was sayin’ let me out of here before I was even born.” The young, sneering protagonist in Andy Tolson’s fictionalized memoir Noisemaker can’t make a break for it fast enough. He’s Billy Stamp – a Haligonian Holden Caulfield with a drum kit and a wanderlust for anarchy in the U.K.

It’s 1979. With punk-rock stardom as a plan, Billy arrives in a rainy, grimy London. Searching for his “tribe,” he hits the places he’s read about in magazines, but without much luck. At this turning point in history, the clock has ticked from punk to postpunk. Billy’s running, and running behind.

Auditioning for one band, he is told his tempo is off. But hey, he’s right out of high school – whose tempo isn’t off at that age? The ghost of the Who’s drummer Keith Moon is one of his guides. A blind, mystic jazzman is another – a bit of a cliché as narratorial devices go. That aside, first-time novelist Tolson has produced a tight jolt of a story about youthful angst, family estrangement and finding one’s groove. While Billy struggles to find his rhythm, the author is locked into his own. — Brad Wheeler

The Rotters’ Club, Jonathan Coe

(Viking Press, 416 pages)

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This 2001 coming-of-age novel by Jonathan Coe, set in Birmingham, England, in the 1970s, follows a group of teenagers who glimpse through the blinkers of adolescence all the major disruptions of that decade in Great Britain, from the strikes to the IRA bombings to the ascendance of Margaret Thatcher.

What’s stuck with me over the years about Coe’s book, aside from a couple of comically humiliating set-pieces worthy of Franzen, is how it explores the political clashes of the time through the music of the time – connecting dots between the decline of British unions and socialism and the rise of Thatcherism to the petering out of the prog-rock scene and arrival of the punk-rock scene. The opposing aesthetics of virtuosity and DIY explain as much about the world then as now – and Coe tests the readers’ own sensibilities and ideologies on that front with a chapter near the end that is one long 13,955-word sentence. — J. Kelly Nestruck

The Wars, Timothy Findley

(Clarke, Irwin & Company, 226 pages)

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Timothy Findley’s The Wars was published in 1977. I must have read the book, about the traumatic First World War experiences of the young Canadian lieutenant Robert Ross, soon after; it was one of the first literary novels I read outside school.

Years later, the only scene I remembered was where the socialite Lady Barbara d’Orsey visits a wounded lover in hospital – accompanied by his replacement. It’s a pantomime that occurs three times in the novel, which is perhaps why it stuck. I recalled it as a singular example of callous self-regard.

Yet rereading The Wars now, I realize Findley is less simplistic than that. Barbara d’Orsey is so alive she lacks any emotional mechanism for dealing with the half-dead men who come back to England from the front. Also, some of the final scenes are painful and ambiguous enough they may have not registered with a young reader.

In the 1970s, these events were as recent as the 1960s are today; seniors could remember the “war to end all wars.” Findley’s text, which flows between traditional third-person narration and an unnamed modern researcher digging into Ross’s story, is filled with details of transport, combat and filth that feel like eye-witness accounts. Yet the book, widely considered among the best war novels ever written, was of its own era, a creature of that nationalistic flowering of Canadian literature in the 1970s. Novelist Guy Vanderhaeghe has said The Wars was where he discovered you could tell Canadian stories. — Kate Taylor

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